I have a Labrador as a pet. They are famous for eating everything. So are mobile consumers, which brings an interesting question: With a flood of mobile “tablet computing” devices such as Apple’s iPad coming, are the wireless networks ready for mobile consumers, the Labradors of data?
The short answer is, “No.” The problem is that tablet computers and all of their bandwidth-heavy network-based applications are a little too innovative for the 3G networks they will be running on. Really, they need 4G, which isn’t really widely available yet, unless you are in a Sprint/Clearwire WiMax zone.
But it comes down to more than that. It’s not just about the 3G or 4G “air interface” that connects the consumer to the mobile tower. On the back-end of the tower, the plumbing has to be adequate to “backhaul” all that data that’s being transmitted. This is the next huge bottleneck. I was shocked to learn at the recent CTIA show in Las Vegas that in many cases, the backhaul links to mobile towers are antiquated copper connections running slower than 10 Mbit/s speed. A Sprint engineer told me it was a looming issue. Yes, in some cases, the backhaul link to the tower will be as slow as the connection to one consumer. There, we have a problem.
Give the history of problems experienced by iPhone customers with AT&T, tablet computers will only magnify the risk that an onslaught of high-data mobile devices will overwhelm the network. It may also push folks into models that can accomodate WiFi networks.
“I think the WiFi models will be more popular for the iPad, especially for iPhone customers who know what it’s like on the 3G network with the iPhone,” says Randy Giusto, and independent analyst. “With the lean-back nature of iPad, and the use in home, would lend itself better to an wifi network anyway. ”
The WiFi networks may work as a stopgap, but the voracious consumer wants more data everywhere. The flood of tablets promise users unlimited access to a cornucopia of network-based apps, where they can play, work, and Twitter to their hearts delight. iPad forecasts are all over the map, but one Wall Street analyst — whatever that’s worth — upgraded the iPad shipments forecast to up to 10 million units in 2010! And that’s just Apple. Keep in mind that many other manufacturers are rushing to market their own pad units. And I’m certain that Google is working on its own flavor of tablet device.
What are the implications of this? Well, first of all, I believe the service providers are going to spend a lot of money upgrading their backhaul networks. Secondly, I think that the roll-outs of tablet computers are going to be mired in customer-service providers as consumers wait to have their visions of mobile data utopia postponed by reality.